Industry HD Uncertainty Flares in Trade Press

For the most part, radio industry trades have not given much substantive thought or analysis to the debacle that is HD Radio. However, some recent developments seem to signal that the winds of sycophancy may be changing.
It’s all happened in the Radio and Business Report. First, the publication let loose an article, whose sources are “some highly accredited/respected Bay Area engineers,” full of complaints and criticisms of HD Radio and its proprietor, iBiquity Digital Corporation. The complaints raised against iBiquity are numerous and significant.
In addition to reporting that one San Francisco-based AM station has turned off its HD sidebands, the article reports dissatisfaction among iBiquity customers, due to the fact that “iBiquity is not providing the promised updates to its software to repair the ‘bugs’ that have developed in the AM codec. The bugs require reboots of the HD encoders, sometimes daily.”
But the most damning “factoid” is that CBS Radio “has quietly told all of its Chief Engineers that CBS will NOT be proceeding with 6-dB power increases for any of its FM stations in any market, at least at this time.” This despite earlier reports from CBS that at least one of its FM-HD stations has increased the power of its digital sidebands, and more would follow.
If this last point is true, it would represent a fundamental shift in the constituency that backs the deployment of HD Radio. CBS Radio is descended from Westinghouse, where USA Digital Radio (i.e., the company that developed the HD Radio system we now have, later to be merged into iBiquity) was founded and, under CBS, once resided.
Those at the top of CBS’s engineering hierarchy should know HD Radio better than anyone else – not only were they around during the technology’s development phase, but they’ve held powerful positions within the National Radio Systems Committee, the intra-industry body that rubber-stamped HD Radio for FCC approval.
Two days later, iBiquity CEO “Smilin’ Bob” Struble responded in RBR to the criticisms. With regard to the software bugs, Struble claims it isn’t iBiquity’s fault, but rather a problem with transmitter manufacturers, and the software causing the problem is not iBiquity’s. This makes little sense because the entire digitization of an analog radio signal takes place within a technological architecture singularly controlled by iBiquity.
With regard to the CBS “announcement,” Struble stated that “we believe these rumors to be untrue. I think you should call CBS directly and ask them.” If RBR has tried to get in touch with CBS, nobody’s answering the phone.
A week later, RBR published a guest commentary by Bob Savage, owner of WYSL-AM in Avon, New York, unabashedly calling for the wipeout of AM-HD entirely. Savage should know: he’s had a running battle with a high-power CBS station in the area that’s been running AM-HD and, subsequently, has caused interference to WYSL. The right sidebar of Savage’s article contains links to all FCC filings made in WYSL’s case – and CBS’s response – so that the reader does not have to take his polemic at face value.
But what a polemic it is:
So why is HD-AM the most hated technical “innovation” in the history of a proud and close-knit industry? Well…..let’s see. It causes noise pollution on originating stations. It’s fragile and craps out with the flip of every nearby light switch or lightning flicker. It’s expensive. The digital coverage sucks. It’s a maintenance hog. HD-AM capable radios are about as commonly available as Kruggerrands in a coin laundry. The Chatty-Cathy Chorusing Codec makes every talk host sound like a vaguely gay Darth Vader. It utterly fails to address AM’s real problems, namely: no night service for daytimers, extreme day-night pattern and power disparities, directional-pattern challenges, noise susceptibility and coverage deficits compared with FM. And that’s for starters….
The irony of the current situation is that HD was promoted as a potential savior of AM. In practice HD-AM has been an unmitigated disaster, an unfunny joke and scourge for the radio industry. To no good purpose whatsoever, HD has divided AM broadcasters into bitterly-opposed camps of interferors [sic] and victim stations deprived of any meaningful recourse by connivance of HD developers with the FCC.
To this story, neither Smilin’ Bob Struble nor CBS has responded. But the main fact of the matter is this: only once in a blue moon has any radio industry trade publication allowed such incisive criticism of HD Radio or its proponents. The fact that these stories are coming to light at all is a good indicator of HD Radio’s declining prospects among broadcasters.
Last time I checked the statistics, the number of HD Radio stations on the air has been basically stagnant. This was a primary reason behind the FCC’s decision to allow FM-HD stations to raise their power levels.
Editorially-speaking, radio industry trade publications have been supporters of HD, primarily because their advertisers are broadcasters, broadcast equipment manufacturers, and broadcast content providers (syndicators). I believe the lack of sustained, substantive criticism over the years in these publications can be traced back to the financial ties they have with their advertisers. This is no conspiracy: it’s simply good business sense not to bite the hand that feeds you (however repugnant those of us outside the trade press think that may be).
But when the hand that feeds you begins drawing blood on your readers (i.e., radio station owners, managers, and engineers) you do have a duty to notice the carnage. Perhaps this may begin in earnest now, but somehow I doubt it.